The First Out-of-Office Message I’ve Ever Written
I haven’t stepped away from the keyboard in 13 years. That changes now.
I wrote my first article, for The Smoking Section, in early 2008. I was a senior in college. On average, I’ve written 2,000–3,000 published words a week since then. That’s 13 straight years of pitching, deadlines, late nights, and early mornings. I’ve been on the verge of burnout more times than I can count.
Maybe it’s because I’m a Recession Baby, never quite secure in the journalism industry and when the next check is coming or disappearing. Maybe it’s the imposter syndrome that made me feel like I always have to prove myself. Maybe I don’t even know. But all of those things that pushed me to never take breaks came to a head last summer.
Last summer I was writing a story about Ahmaud Arbery that ripped me apart. I had a full-time job. I was taking every story someone wanted to assign me. And I was writing a book. I was absorbing the worst America was doing to us and trying to synthesize it into something useful. I don’t know what comes after burnout, but I was there. And I kept pushing.
At one point I was in the middle of two deadlines, finishing a book chapter and getting ready for the fall semester at Morehouse and an editor reached out to me for a story. I didn’t have the time. I didn’t have anything left. But I said yes. The article paid a couple of hundred bucks.
There’s one article from last year that I have no recollection of writing. Like, I remember it being assigned. I remember it being published. I don’t remember the actual act of writing it. That doesn’t seem healthy.
But now I’m choosing restoration. I find myself unexpectedly in a space where I can take some months off to take care of myself while working on my book and teaching. So at the end of March comes a nine-week break from the grind. I may write a short article here and there—once a month, max—but I’ve enlisted accountability partners to make sure I truly take this time. If and when editors reach out, I’ll be directing them to other writers who can write these articles as well or better than I can. I know that there’s a privilege in being overworked in this industry. That’s something I don’t want to take for granted and make sure I pay forward.
In truth, I’m writing this for a couple of reasons, and one is because I’m sort of scared. I’ve never allowed myself to take this kind of pause (again, I’ll still be working two jobs, SMH) for an extended amount of time. I don’t know how to take a break. I don’t know what recharging looks and feels like. I have to learn, though.
The other reason is that I don’t want anyone reading this to feel like they have to do what I’ve done. And I’m going to actively work so that as few people as possible feel like this path is the way. I want to work toward an industry that doesn’t exploit so many journalists or dilute our voices.
I’m not going to try to disseminate any advice or anything because who the hell am I. But I will say this: I wish I had taken better care of myself. I wish I had rested. I wish I’d spent more time with my family. I wish I’d said “no” more. I wish I’d believed in myself enough to not push as hard. I don’t know the long-term damage that’s arisen from my need to run myself ragged. But I’m making a promise to myself not to do this again.
Do what you want with that. In the meantime, I’m going to try to take as many naps as possible in April and May. See you all soon.